A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Not very far from where I live (but not very close either) there is a mysterious long wall along the side of a road that seems to wind for miles. It is just high enough to enable one to see that on the other side are many imposing and rather mournful-looking Sequoias (Giant Redwood trees, that seem to thrive marvellously in, of all places, Surrey). The wall encloses what is rather mundanely named these days Brookwood Cemetery, which used to be The London Necropolis. At one time, it was the largest cemetery in the world, and I believe it still claims to be the largest in Britain. Its foundation is the absolute epitome of a uniquely Victorian mixture of philanthropic impulse and hard-nosed enterprise. It was founded for the decorous and hygienic interment of London’s dead, at the time that its population was rocketing and all its churchyards full to overflowing, causing a public health scandal that none could ignore which led to the closure of London’s graveyards in 1851. So the land was bought and an Act of Parliament obtained, and the cemetery was opened in the early 1850s. Taking Victorian enterprise even further, the cemetery was served by its very own railway company, with specialised rolling stock and a private station close to Waterloo designed for and dedicated to the reception of hearses and the funeral parties that accompanied them. It had a private junction on to the tracks of the London and South-Western Railway, and a private branch line from Brookwood Station right into the cemetery. There were even two separate stations in there, one for Church of England funeral parties, and one for Non-conformists and those of other faiths.
It should have been a sure-fire financial success, as it was dealing (as the saying goes) in one of the only two certainties in all our lives. But its opportunity to corner the market (forgive me for being so earthbound) was ruined before the end of the nineteenth century as it was in competition with other large new cemeteries created in the suburbs to serve London, and closer to the city, such as Kensal Green, Highgate and Brompton. Its business assumption that it would receive over 10,000 burials a year was never approached even by half.
So this is the local colour that lead me to read Andrew Martin’s murder mystery The Necropolis Railway with some enjoyment. It is set in the early 1900s, when the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company is struggling to survive, and firmly based in the unique selling point of the London Necropolis, its very own railway. The narrative requires quite a lot of concentration, unless one is a railway, and specifically a steam buff. It is a truly nerdy read, full of technical talk and railway slang – the reader needs to be prepared either to swallow it whole as the plot rattles (and clanks) along, or keep a notebook close by to write down new words. The other local colour, of which this novel has bushels, is the setting of the area around Waterloo, Lower Marsh and Nine Elms railway yards where most of the action takes place. This is a black, dirty, noisy, dangerous place, full of feral characters whose motivation remains murky throughout, both the railwaymen and its other denizens. Into this minor circle of hell falls naive ‘smart lad’ Jim Stringer, talent-spotted while at his post on tidy, decorous Grosmont Station in the North York Moors by a well-turned out London chap, in the sort of way that should really make any smart lad wonder if some offers might be too good to be true. But once in London he is watchful and resourceful, though his naivety drives much of the suspense and many hairs-breadth ‘scapes. He’s a primeval train-spotter, and they notice things, don’t they, and make connections. Various mysterious deaths all point to some rottenness at the core of the London Necropolis Company, and Jim Stringer may be next in line – but from what direction can he expect his danger to come? All he wants, as which upstanding smart lad doesn’t, is to become an engine-driver – if he can stay alive long enough.
This is all played out in a hellish setting of smoke, dirt, coal, dangerous machines, filthy digs, dodgy pubs, houses of ill-fame, in the terrifying decayed train yards of Nine Elms and the seamy, steamy, sooty rookery that is Lower Marsh. This novel has been around for a bit now, and I wonder if it pre-dates Steampunk (about which I have to confess I know vanishingly little) – it certainly pre-figures its dark and risky atmosphere, though while Steampunk is a fantasy genre, The Necropolis Railway is based on actual geography and on a real enterprise that I think Steampunk would have been proud to invent, but which nevertheless has a historical basis. If you like what you read in the first few chapters, then this is a truly original start to a line of historically-based thrillers. Andrew Martin has been a worthy winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Award for a later novel in this series (The Somme Stations 2011) and I can imagine the impact that this first novel had.
It is an achievement to conjure a London that my grandparents’ generation would remember but is now utterly lost. Lower Marsh is gentrifying so fast that you need a stop-watch to work out the property values, and Nine Elms is now hidden under the New Covent Garden vegetable and flower markets. Brookwood Cemetery still functions, and has a selection of graves as well worth visiting as Highgate or Kensal Green, in my opinion – how about John Singer Sargent, the free-thinking MP for Northampton Charles Bradlaugh, the novelist Rebecca West and the wonderful Sufi master and writer Idries Shah who I think is completely forgotten these days. Its dedicated station at the London end was destroyed by bombing in 1941, and its branch line into the cemetery is long gone, though a section of line and the platforms of the two stations are preserved. Another claim to fame is that one of its chapels, next to the site of the South (Anglican) station, is now the mother church of the St Edward Brotherhood, a small monastic community of the Orthodox Church of Greece – Holy Synod in Resistance, that houses and venerates the relics of King (St) Edward the Martyr.
I am sure that all the Jim Stringer, Steam Detective novels are as vivid and suspenseful – but what led me to this one was the memory of the melancholy wall surrounding Brookwood Cemetery. It is a place that is still full of mysteries and surprises.
Andrew Martin: The Necropolis Railway. London: Faber, 2005. pbk ed. 240pp
First published 2002
Series: Jim Stringer, Steam Detective.
ISBN 13: 9780571228782
I read the Kindle edition; also available in EPUB format.